By Bill Citara
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A gaping hole has appeared in the Miami dining scene, and it is being stuffed with meat. Norman's, Pacific Time, Johnny V, and a host of other chef-driven establishments have closed during the past year. Filling in are DeVito chop house, Grimpa's Steakhouse featuring rodizio from Brazil, Texas de Brazil rodizio steak house above Monty's South Beach, The Knife Argentinean Steakhouse at Bayside Marketplace, renowned chef Michael Mina's Bourbon Steak at Turnberry Isle, a Lincoln Road steak house soon-to-be opened by the Touch team, an Outback Steakhouse outlet as well as a franchise of Cleveland's The Red Steakhouse along with Queen Latifah's L.A. fast-food FatBurger, all three on Washington Avenue — plus PrimeBlue Grill steak-and-seafood house downtown. Just as disturbing a notion is that almost all of this season's restaurant openings of note are branches, chains, and would-be chains (many of which are the aforementioned meateries). This is not a positive step toward establishing credibility as a serious food town. Yet the arrival of these monolithic and moneyed establishments isn't all bad. Such corporate entities possess the dough and know-how to operate a business properly, and are often capable of producing menus of fresh, appealing foods; stocking extensive wine inventories; and creating elegant and expansive environments in which to dine. PrimeBlue Grill, which premiered adjacent to the One Miami condo in July, provides all of the above.
Much is being made of PrimeBlue's nontraditional steak house décor, and it is a welcome change; let's hope the musty old men's club ambiance is going the way of musty old men. The two-tiered dining room is a sleekly lined, contemporary take on American Craftsman-style architecture of the Thirties, with white stonework arches and fireplace, light maple wood paneling, richly patterned carpeting, cushiony chairs and banquettes, local artwork (not, thankfully, of equestrian nature), an open kitchen, and a winding bar. White linen tops the tables. It is an absolutely airy space, thanks to a high ceiling and especially to a wall of windows facing Biscayne Bay. An outdoor dining terrace with a breezier version of this view sits on the other side of the glass.
The cuisine is brighter than the steak house norm too. In fact while aged prime beef is at the core of the menu, focus is equally on land and sea. The real hook, however, is that all fish are wild-caught, and the meat comes from Brandt Beef in California: natural, antibiotic- and hormone-free, 100 percent source-verified, and authentically corn-fed (ever wonder what cows eating only creamed corn would taste like?). With mad-meat scares, tainted-food scandals, and increased interest in where our meals come from, this seems a prime time for such a concept.
That's what Jim Dunn and Dave Terry of the WellDunn Restaurant Group are hoping, for this is the first of a planned national rollout of PrimeBlues. They've got not only an opportune idea, but also a wealth of experience in the field, having formerly served, respectively, as president and executive vice president of the Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group. WellDunn's corporate chef, Tindaro LoSurdo, also hails from that hale steak house, having worked as executive chef of the Boston branch since its 2004 inception. And Wesley Moura is PrimeBlue's executive chef. All the ducks are lined up.
So are whole fish and thickly marbled steaks, cut by an onsite butcher, both displayed in a small retail case by the entrance. I suggest sticking to the straight-on preparations of either rather than experimenting with more complexly conceptualized dishes. Worst of these was tea-brined chicken, which arrived smeared with what looked and tasted like straight tomato paste. The breast meat was dry, too, with no hint of tea or brine. "Ken's pasta" featured firm strands of tagliatelle interspersed with impeccably cooked scallops, shrimp, crab meat, and mussels in the shell, but a dark dose of Cajun blackening spices mucked up everything. A crabcake burger at lunch had the opposite problem: The patty came plumped with sumptuous lumps of crab, but was flatly underseasoned.
Ah, but the steaks here are dandy. Especially big cuts such as T-bone, Porterhouse, and bone-in rib eye, the last a plush hunk of juicy meat crisply crusted from an 1800-degree hickory-burning grill, and imbued with more smoke after its brief spell in an oak-fired oven. Like the crabcake, though, it lacked seasoning (thank goodness for salt and pepper mills on the table). Accompaniments bring a choice of balsamic-spiked corn relish, caramelized cipollini onions, vinegary pepper relish, and wild mushroom vinaigrette. For a charge of $3, steaks can be crusted with Gorgonzola or bathed in truffle butter; it will cost you $8 to get it topped traditional veal Oscar-style with crabmeat, béarnaise sauce, and asparagus spears.
On our initial visit, we waited an inordinate amount of time for the entrées to arrive. The waiter and manager were on top of the situation, coming by frequently with updates and apologies. The kitchen crew, still working out opening kinks, was clearly overwhelmed. So it was with great reluctance that I returned my hanger steak frites. The meat had arrived sliced, undercooked, and cold. Fries of the skinny, frozen sort likewise had lacked heat. It didn't take long for the same plate to return, the steak now well-done, the fries slightly blackened from reheating under a broiler. I stole a tasty taste before asking the waiter to take it back for good; I shared the robust rib eye with my companion. After we'd finished our meals, the manager brought over two desserts on the house. The staff had handled a potentially bad situation in a way that left us feeling pretty good. This is an extremely amiable, likable, and professional team of hosts, managers, waiters, and buspeople. And there seems to be a veritable herd of them working the room at any given time, each one cheerily chipping in. Service was excellent.